GOLD - A Story by Mildred Murphy Pond
Particles of gold, billions of them sparkling in the vacant air, scattered like tiny sprites along the wide sidewalks, floating by, easy to catch with one’s eye as they cut across one’s path, everyone’s path. It was crowded on that particular day, shortly before noon, lunchtime, a block or so north of Grand Central.
The doormen in their beige, gold braided coats, rushed to open doors, let everyone out – and everyone, stepping onto the sidewalks, caught sight of the pulsating light, turned their heads upwards as if they’d just been shown out of a cave, welcoming the flickering gold on their faces.
A man stood in the middle of the avenue’s yellow, daffodil and tulip-filled, island. There were masses of other tulips along each block’s island, shouting gold all the way up and down the avenue. The man in the middle of the island was speaking, but no one heard what he said for all the din. They just saw him gesticulating. Up close, really close, they heard the mumble of his voice, the jumble or words, slipping through the traffic’s noise, and they could smell the man, too, and see the filth under his uncut fingernails, his oily, unwashed, thinning white hair, the unkempt stubble covering his jaw. His tired, watery blue eyes didn’t seem to notice the flecks of gold daintily flicker onto his cheeks, brush past his fragile frame.
All alone he stood, amidst the rushing thrust of people and bright yellow taxis and vans and the helmeted messengers dangerously speeding by on their skeletal bicycles. The passersby saw, and didn’t see, the man on the island -- in the manner of hurrying pedestrians -- and he didn’t seem to care if they did. Yet there he was, speaking to them, gesticulating, never looking anyone in the eye.
He stank. Smelled so awful some passersby started to gag as soon as they stepped onto the island, and at the last infuriating moment -- smelling him, hearing his soft mumble -- had to wait for the light to change before crossing to the other side. Still, if they had to wait, they were glad to stand alongside the gold-yellow tulips and daffodils in the giant white tubs. There must have been ten thousand of them brightening up the avenue that day, along each island, along each sidewalk.
Their cost alone could have fed an African or Haitian village for days, but then so could almost everything else along the avenue. In a bizarre sort of way the flowers had no fragrance. Even if they had it would have been blown away by the flight of gold particles rushing by and everyone breathed through his mouth anyway, so as not to gag on the stench of the gesticulating, white haired fellow whose dirty baggy pants had jagged holes in each knee.
He spoke to the lunchtime crowds. No one could tell if it was a rehearsed speech that he gave, had learned by heart, though it could have been extemporaneous too, coming spontaneously from the depths of his far-away mind. Every day he came, though in truth no one saw him come and no one saw him leave. One wonders why. But he came every day. To speak. To speak his mind! The voice was soft, soft insistent, easily drowned out in the noise of rushing taxis, fancy foreign automobiles, stretch limousines. When they stopped for the red light at the corner, he droned on.
“It is time. . . .” That was one phrase. The rest were little islands of words, flung out without sense in a vaguely intense way. . .”It’s black water. . .too late. . the shadow of death. . .” Or, all of a sudden, clearly – “Why do nations conspire?”
No one listened -- Why bother? – to this uninvited intruder the authorities had not swept away and hid somewhere, who was interrupting their smooth-flowing interlude in the gold-filled sunshine, between high speed internet conferences, business meetings, scheduled speeches, contracts to sign, dates to hurry to, planes to catch, things to buy, buy, buy, sell, sell, sell.
The smelly interloper should not have been there jabbing the air with his filthy index finger, ruining the free flight of golden particles. . .jab, jab, jab, angry pokes near a passerby’s eye, just missing someone’s jaw or shoulder as he crossed the island. Hundreds crossed the island, having to get to the other side.
“Genesis,” he mumbled, or maybe the word was “Generations,” pointing toward the gold-flecked sky, then looking around, not seeing anyone in the crowd, yet speaking as if he knew they heard. Quite mad he was, really, it was easy to see how mad he was, making his irritating, senseless speech, insisting that he be heard, as if he were fulfilling a mysterious, yet private, function.
Someone suddenly did stop, narrowed her eyes, saw. She was a woman, getting on in years, a little wobbly on her spindly legs. She wore a stylish, light yellow suit, and dark glasses, through which she stared at the gesticulating man. More or less automatically she pulled a small brocaded purse out of her large expensive suede bag and fished out a dollar bill, folded it quickly to avoid catching anyone’s attention, lest the dollar bill be snatched by an alert thief. Then she looked around for the man’s tin cup, an empty cap on the sidewalk, maybe an old paper bag, into which she could drop her donation. But he had no cup, no paper bag, no cap. He wasn’t asking for money. How mad could you be not to ask for money? He had such vague, watery eyes! And he kept talking, calling – calling? She’d seen him here before. No, she hadn’t; she’d have remembered. Why on earth had she stupidly stopped, grabbed the dollar bill?
The woman in the yellow suit and dark glasses knew the sun was shining suddenly on her, like a spotlight, and she felt naked, stark naked, with her arm outstretched, holding a pathetic single dollar bill, while the crazy man went on, and on, with his unfathomable lonely prattle.
The gall of him to put her in this situation! The woman in the yellow suit and dark glasses had experienced a momentary pity for the foul smelling man, the whole sorry indignity of him, but now she despised him. It was embarrassing.
Their gazes suddenly locked, though not quite. His glance was stuck somewhere near her eye, off kilter, her earlobe perhaps, and she could feel the dripping wetness of his vacant stare, a look of longing in it – no! Surely not longing – like a brother’s.
She was already late for her lunch date at the Waldorf with two old friends. It was a weekly arrangement ever since their husbands had left them widows. The lights changed again. Now she would have to linger here, carefully put the dollar bill back into her coin purse and slip it into her big suede bag.
As she stood there fumbling with her bag, still too close to the mumbling man, someone behind her grew impatient, jostled her – how could the old biddy in her yellow suit stop like that and slow up the rushing lunchtime crowd? – and knocked her off the sidewalk into the rushing traffic. A sleek, long as an eel, black limousine with opaque windows screeched to a halt. The woman in the yellow suit and dark glasses landed on the street, first on her bony old knees, then her hip.
The limousine had stopped in the nick of time. Several well-dressed men, how incredibly well dressed they were, leaped from the island to her aid. Her yellow suit was soiled, her bruised knees were bleeding, and one of the several gold bracelets on her wrist had snapped during her fall, cutting into her skinny, veined hand, the one that still clutched her dollar bill.
“Are you all right?” the limousine’s chauffeur asked.
No she wasn’t, she was quite furious, so furious she was nearly speechless. She told the little cluster of suddenly concerned citizens to leave her there; she didn’t need their help. A layer of brown dust had insinuated itself permanently into the loose weave of her yellow suit. She would have to miss her lunch date at the Waldorf, where she never ate much anyway, as food didn’t interest her anymore; one of her many doctors told her she looked like a scarecrow.
In her wobbly way, she managed to walk the two blocks up the avenue to her apartment building, where the elegantly cloaked, gold epaulette shouldered young doorman -- the new one, so young, with his coal black face and huge alert dark eyes -- gave her a welcoming, all-is-safe-in-this-world smile. Already, he knew how to do this so well. He looked right past the filth on her yellow suit, the scrawny hand (oh my, it still clutched the dollar bill). How kind he was not to see her decrepit condition, though of course she paid him to be kind, but he did it so well, as if he meant it.
He walked beside her to the golden lobby, into the golden cage, pushed the penthouse button for her, gave her another kind grin as he stepped out, and she felt secure again, less of a fool, less old, still very rich – the words “out of harm's way” crossed her mind -- as the gold cage lifted her up toward the sky where she lived, surrounded by antique trunks of gold.
She stood in the vestibule of her spacious apartment, and thought that the foul-smelling crazy man on the street below probably still prattled on. She’d heard him say, “Shadow of death.” Or was it “Shallows of wealth?” No, no no, she wasn’t sure what she’d heard. And again she saw his glance of longing, aimed straight at her, hovering so close, she’d felt it, splashing, clinging like glue.
She went unsteadily to the living room window. She hoped against hope that he had left his island pulpit, vanished into the misery from which he’d come. But she could see nothing. A blinding storm had begun. That so often happened at this hour. Today it made her nervous.
The gold particles, swept up by high velocity winds, rushed between the tall buildings, thickened and caked into clumps as large has hailstones and began to swirl back and forth, smacking onto her windowpanes, flying out again at the speed of nothing she knew of, save perhaps light, a terrifying sight, so frightening it made her long for more air, a little more air, because she couldn’t see through the murky thickness outside. And suddenly she couldn’t breathe. What a horrible day it had been, all because of . . .and she felt a sickening tug from below, down in the street she couldn’t even see.
She stepped back, told herself she didn’t mind, not here, high up above it all, except that the gold particles had never been so thick, so solid! Her heart was beating too fast and she had to clutch the windowsill; she realized, taking another gasp of air that she couldn’t see past her nose.
She kept her eyes shut tight and after a while she felt less shattered, a bit safer. After all, she told herself, this was always her favorite time of day. Time for a cup of tea. Tea always made her feel like herself again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mildred Murphy Pond is a former New York Times reporter, published short story writer, essayist, playwright (one, off-off Broadway production), etc.